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Prep Time: Find Your Sweet Spot

Posted By Martin Ralya On May 14, 2008 @ 12:06 am In GMing Advice | 14 Comments

As a general rule, I’m not a big fan of game prep — for me it’s more like work than fun, and the real fun comes when I’m running the game. The catch, of course, is that in order to have the crazy fun of actually GMing for your group, you have to do at least some game prep.

Different Games, Different Prep Times

What I’ve noticed over the years is that the amount of prep I need to do to run a fun game varies according to the game, the group and what’s going on in my life at the time. Realizing that my game prep sweet spot is a moving target is a big help when I sit down to think about how to approach GMing a game.

For example, back in college I ran an AD&D 2nd Edition campaign that was 95% improvised, and both I and my players look back on it fondly. It wasn’t a perfect game by any means, but it was one of the most purely fun campaigns I’ve ever run, and that was due in large part to how much of it I pulled out of my ass. For that unique combination of game, group and circumstances, a low-prep improv game worked perfectly.

Fast forward a few years, and I ran a D&D 3.0 campaign for the same group that wasn’t nearly as fun — despite the fact that I put a lot more time into prep. I chalk some of the blah factor up to the fact that I worried too much about prep, and also spent too much time on the wrong kind of prep. Hand-coding a website for the game? Not nearly as important as, say, making sure the encounters I came up with were fun for my players.

I’m currently running a prep-intensive Mage: The Awakening campaign for my group here in Utah, and my prep sweet spot for this particular chronicle is roughly 1:1 — I spend 6-8 hours on prep for each 7-8 hour session. I’m having a blast running this game, and from what they’ve told me my players are enjoying it as well.

So what’s the difference between this prep-intensive campaign and the other one? This time around, I hit my sweet spot. I still make mistakes (of course!), but by and large I’m prepping for the right stuff and spending my prep time wisely.

Mmmm, Delicious Sweet Spot

Finding your sweet spot is a combination of being clear about what kind of game you’re running (and prepping accordingly) and identifying what you, personally, need to do to accomplish that at the table. It doesn’t matter how long other GMs spend on prep — only how long you need.

Look to the Past: How much time did you spend on prep for your last game? Was it a fun game? Could it have been more fun if you’d spent more or less time on prep, or changed up the kind of prep you did? This works well as a starting point for me, and it helps to shape the rest of the process of finding my sweet spot. (If you’re brand new to GMing, of course, you won’t have this luxury. Instead, just experiment with your first game and stay flexible.)

Eyes on the Prize: Know what you and your players want out of each session, and only prep stuff that contributes to that goal. This lines up well with mistake #4 in Patrick’s 5 Mistakes of the New GM: don’t waste time prepping material you and/or your players won’t care about during the game. This might seem self-explanatory, but at least for me it’s easy to forget when I’m under a deadline.

Identify Your Strengths: I’m good at improvisation, and I enjoy it. Knowing that, I can leave appropriate gaps in my prep and save time in the process. For example, I’d much rather write down what an NPC cares about, or what she wants to get out of a scene, and skip writing specific dialogue or plotting out a bunch of ways the scene could go. Ditto with descriptions: I don’t need an elaborate description, just enough of one to evoke the feel I’m going for; I can wing the rest in play.

Identify Your Weaknesses: Among other things, I tend to play too loose with my important NPCs’ stats and abilities if I create them on the fly. Knowing this, I stat up key NPCs beforehand. I’ve also learned that if I don’t self-limit how much time I spend drawing maps, I can waste hours on details no one cares about. These days, I sketch a quick map with the bare minimum of detail and move on.

Break Your Prep into Chunks: For me, those chunks are: brainstorming, outlining, sketching in my outline, writing my scenes, fiddling with my scenes, statting my NPCs, creating my maps and handouts, reading the whole thing over. I keep an eye on how long each chunk takes every time I prep, and after a few sessions I know roughly what to expect. When I spot one that takes a lot longer than I expected, I know to allow more time for that chunk next time.

Evaluate Often: After each session, I think about what went well and what went poorly and try to see if there’s any connection between that and how much, how little or what kind of prep I did for that session. Realizing that I needed stronger roleplaying cues for a particular NPC, prepared responses for spells the PCs might cast or even more/fewer or longer/shorter scenes is a big help for next time.

Stress Thyself Not: At the end of the day, don’t worry yourself sick about prep. I know I’m advocating thinking critically about the time you spend prepping, but there’s a big difference between thinking critically and losing sleep over whether or not you’re spending exactly the right amount of time on it. If you’re running a fun game, you’re probably doing the right amount of prep.

Ultimately, finding your game prep sweet spot is a journey, not necessarily a destination — and it’s a journey that involves a healthy amount of self-acceptance. I would love to spend less time on prep for my current game (or any game, really), but I can accept that for all of us to have fun, I need to put in that time. On the flipside, I’m open to finding shortcuts and saving time wherever I can — there are always ways to learn to prep faster and more efficiently.

What’s your prep sweet spot for your current game? Have you noticed that your sweet spot changes from game to game? Do you have any tips for reducing prep time without sacrificing quality?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Prep Time: Find Your Sweet Spot"

#1 Comment By tallarn On May 14, 2008 @ 2:26 am

Thanks for this (and for the previous entries).

I’m just about to start DMing for a long term campaign, and whilst I’ll be using the D&D 4e modules (starting with Keep on the Shadowfell) it’ll be a useful exercise to keep a track of the prep that I end up needing to do.

I’m hoping that by putting some good notes in the adventure text itself (eg “This innkeeper likes to shout!”) I can keep the game interesting without getting bogged down in detail.

#2 Comment By darkliquid On May 14, 2008 @ 2:45 am

I tend to do little to no per-session prepping, but tend to prep for the whole campaign. I’ve found this works sometimes, but more often than not I think my games sometimes suffer for it depending on who inspired I am at the time. I like improvisation and tend to be fairly good at it but perhaps some per-session prep would be a benefit.

Thanks for the tips, I especially think some post-gaming evaluation would sort me out most of all. Trouble is, most of my games are run in the evening and I’m off to bed afterwards and by the morning I’ve forgotten everything I wanted to go over!

#3 Comment By Sektor On May 14, 2008 @ 3:02 am

Personally, I like prep time at least as much as the game itself. The creative juices that flow during prep are really enjoyable, and they often spin off more ideas for NPCs, encounters, adventures, …

I must say, though, that this is partly because I have too little actual game time in my busy life, and the prep (or just any reading up on fluff or crunch) is a nice substitute on the actual gaming. Also, I can easily make time for prep while I’m on the train to and from work.

That said, I often do still miss the ball during my sessions, in that I have been ‘preparing’ unnecessary stuff, or even not the most important things. So your tips are definitely worth a try for me!

My prep looks somewhat like this (keeping in mind that these days I only run published material):
- WAY in advance, I read the material cover to cover, to have an idea of the plot, setting, and overal mood. I like this part so much, that I now have a lot of published stuff that I never have even played, and probably never will play.
- A couple of months before the first session, I start copying the entire adventure to my notebook, so I have easy access to all the stats, encounters, ideas, PCs, … This includes properly translating all the descriptions to my language, so I don’t need to worry about realtime translations (which tends to get in the way of the description itself, and kills the mood).
- Before each session, I go over the material again, making a (mostly overestimated) guess on how far my players will get that session.
- If I have time left, I plan for extra things, like specialized combat tactics for important encounters, extra events in the campaign that have nothing to do with the adventure except to add flavor, etcetera.

#4 Comment By PaPeRoTTo On May 14, 2008 @ 5:13 am

I try to think to everything will be indipendently of what PG’s doing..

i mean.. The plan of the evil, when and how it will be realized.. some sort of festivities.. everything that hasn’t nothing to do with the heroes.. than i imagine some “Film Scene” that i would love to play and i work on ‘em.. than i work on NPCs and little but non deleteble anyway by PGs.. than i prepare some preps for the players and then i leave imagination flows with the PG :)

#5 Comment By NukeHavoc On May 14, 2008 @ 5:55 am

I used to happily spend hours upon hours prepping for my campaign, not caring if I threw away three-quarters of what I wrote because hey, I was having fun right?

And then I had kids.

Now I’m far more focused, striving to knock out my adventure notes in an hour or so, and keeping my adventure write-ups to three pages or less. I wrote this up as my Three-Page Manifesto over on Nuketown; the gist of it is that I need to write less in order to be able to GM more.

#6 Comment By ligedog On May 14, 2008 @ 10:02 am

Unfortuately I find I need time to generate good ideas. To go back to the notebook idea I generally jot down ideas over the week at work and then put them together in an adventure form when I get enough. I have run things from the notes but I find that gets a little stressful – its much better to have a decent writeup. One thing I am still figuring out is how far the players will get through the adventure in one session.

#7 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 14, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

@Darkliquid: I finish my sessions pretty wiped, but my 10-minute drive plus some back burner time the next morning tends to do the trick. I wrote a Treasure Tables post about using your mental back burners a couple years ago — even a few minutes before bed might be all you need.

@NukeHavoc: Man, three pages sounds like some kind of crazy dream! My last session writeup ran about 20 pages. Now I feel all bloated. ;)

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On May 14, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

My sweetspot changes depending on the game. For my D&D group, I find that statting out badguys is a lot of my prep– particularly familiarizing myself with spell selection and magic for humanoids. While I reuse a lot of NPCs [they're fighting an empire... most first level warriors and fighters are "same enough"], there’s a lot of time tweaking and customizing opponents for good fights. I keep everyone to a 3×5 card. Otherwise, my prep is a lot lighter, with a sketchy world map and confidence that I can wing random buildings and farmsteads. Given the range and unpredictability of my group, I’d have a lot of paper if I drew everything out in 10×10 squares.

My other group is playing PTA. There, I spend the time sketching out a barebones plot for the episode, a few key players, and their relations. A lot the prep is strongly focussed by the Screen Presence of the different protagonists. For the next session, one PC has a SP of 3, so a lot of the NPCs and plot prep ties into the character’s background.

#9 Comment By zacharythefirst On May 14, 2008 @ 6:34 pm

I use my lil notebook and haul it everywhere–work, road trips, the bathroom–and I transfer things to a Google Docs document when I get the chance. This not only allows me a chance to refine my thoughts when porting it all over, but when done regularly keeps me from forgetting what the heck my shorthand was supposed to mean (“K g 2 vm pt 4-77 the who zbldyzb?”)

For prep, I’ve gone more and more towards using stock villian templates and giving them a few key powers, almost like how you want to give an NPC one or two memorable or unique traits. That’s what the players will remember, in my experience. For example, a lot of the mages I use have the same base template, but specialize in a few spells I know will be an interesting mix for the players.

Kids, wives, jobs–you gotta cut the fat from your prep time. Which stinks, because I like the worldbuilding aspect it can provide. I’d fall asleep if all I did was stat out minions. :)

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 15, 2008 @ 7:38 am

I have found that it’s entirely possible to ‘over-prepare’. Sometimes it’s best to just rely on your improvisation skills. (But take good notes if you do!)

I also find that my prep brainstorms never come when I need them to. When I have the ideas, I write. When I don’t, I do other things to free up time for the brainstorm.

I’ve said it before: If you’re playing D&D, and you’re not using HeroForge to stat up your NPCs, you are wasting time.

HeroForge is a free Excel spreadsheet that handles almost every WotC sourcebook. SpellForge handles spell selection for the same. Both can manage characters up to 60th level, including epic rules, magic items, templates, oddball races, etc. Because it’s Excel, it can be modified to fit many House Rules.

Caveat: I have worked with the dev team for quite a while, so I may be a bit biased. But rolling up an accurate 40th level Fiendish Half Black Dragon Drow Scout-True Necromancer-Thrall of Orcus in 10 minutes is pretty awesome.

#11 Comment By Sarlax On May 15, 2008 @ 10:00 am

My sweet spot is about 2 hours, which is usually reviewing and recording the events of the previous session for about an hour, then reviewing all my campaign notes for another hour.

I find the best thing I can do is to know my campaign world and the big people in it. Although the scope of the campaign is continental and planar, the actual setting is no more than a half-dozen cities and a small number of other locales. The NPCs tend to last, so there’s a small cast to manage as well.

I’ve always avoided writing up particular outcomes in the game; I don’t want to rule the game. At this point, though, it’s a moot issue – the PCs would be impossible to control – they’re 16th level now and have a set of abilities that allow them to do nearly anything.

Instead of trying to make things happen, I spend my short prep time working out ways to let things happen.

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 15, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

@ZacharyTheFirst: I like the idea of making sure every key villain has a couple of signature abilities, and leaving the rest stock — that’s a great shortcut.

@Sarlax: I was pretty shocked the first time you told me about your relatively short prep time — I would have guessed you spent much longer on it, based on the level of detail in our campaign.

#13 Comment By Lee Hanna On May 15, 2008 @ 6:21 pm

I can’t say what my sweet spot is yet, I wasn’t paying attention before. A few things I have done: Write up whole encounters on one piece of paper (yes, I prefer pencil and paper)– time of day, lighting, weather, terrain, bad guys and their tactics, treasure. This does one of two things for me afterwards– the whole sheet gets marked up for what happened, and it goes in the “Stuff done” folder, for later reference if needed; OR it goes in the “Stuff undone” folder if the players bypass it somehow, so I can use it later (Hmm, they’re in the woods, and spending extra time there, let’s pull out those goblin archers they detoured around two games ago…”
When preparing, I have this template: 1) write up last session, and note loose ends– often during the meal after that game. 2) For the first week or two after, look at the big picture of the campaign- what are the NPCs up to, what might the weather be, etc. What kind of encounters might happen as a result of the party’s actions and plans, and those of the NPCs? 3) About 1-2 weeks out from the game, I narrow my focus, and start designing and statting encounters and the fluff between them.
I also try to stay in contact with the players during this 1) comes with xp and treasure allocation; 2) comes with talk about character goals and sometimes out-of-game role-playing (most of the romance seems to happen here; I will reward for in-character emails). Scheduling the next game often falls in here, too. 3) comes with confirmation of the game date (and often, re-scheduling).

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